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For personal use. Only reproduce with permission from The Lancet.
Intestinal infection with
Vibrio cholerae
results in the loss of large volumes of watery stool, leading to severe andrapidly progressing dehydration and shock. Without adequate and appropriate rehydration therapy, severe cholera killsabout half of affected individuals. Cholera toxin, a potent stimulator of adenylate cyclase, causes the intestine tosecrete watery fluid rich in sodium, bicarbonate, and potassium, in volumes far exceeding the intestinal absorptivecapacity. Cholera has spread from the Indian subcontinent where it is endemic to involve nearly the whole world seventimes during the past 185 years.
V cholerae
serogroup O1, biotype El Tor, has moved from Asia to cause pandemicdisease in Africa and South America during the past 35 years. A new serogroup, O139, appeared in south Asia in1992, has become endemic there, and threatens to start the next pandemic. Research on case management of cholera led to the development of rehydration therapy for dehydrating diarrhoea in general, including the proper use of intravenous and oral rehydration solutions. Appropriate case management has reduced deaths from diarrhoeal diseaseby an estimated 3 million per year compared with 20 years ago. Vaccination was thought to have no role for cholera,but new oral vaccines are showing great promise.
Detailed accounts of the history of cholera are available soonly a brief summary is provided here.
“Asiatic cholera”,as it was sometimes called, has been endemic in southAsia, especially the Ganges delta region, from the time of recorded history. It was always much feared because itregularly occurred in epidemics with high mortality rates.In Kolkata, a cholera temple, Ola Beebe (“our lady of theflux”), was built for protection against the disease. In1817, the first cholera pandemic began with spread of thedisease outside the Indian subcontinent along trade routesto the west as far as southern Russia. A second pandemicstarted in 1826 and reached the major European cities bythe early 1830s. In 1831, the pandemic reached the UK and the response was important in that it led to theestablishment of local Boards of Health and a “CholeraGazette”, which served as a clearing house for tracking theepidemic.
At that time cholera was thought to be spread by the“miasma” (like a fog) coming from the river, but theclassic epidemiological study of John Snow in 1854 inLondon showed the association of the disease withcontaminated drinking water even before any bacteriawere known to exist.
Three more pandemics, continuingup to 1925, involved Africa, Australia, Europe, and all theAmericas. The causative agent,
Vibrio cholerae,
was notidentified until 1884 in Kolkata during the fifthpandemic.
Why the earlier pandemics began and howthey ended is not known. However, cholera did not persistin any of the new geographical areas that it had invadedbut continued as an endemic disease in the Ganges delta.Because of the large numbers of cases and deathsduring these pandemics, the disease was viewed as amajorpublic-health disaster requiring governmentalintervention. The New York cholera epidemic led to thefirst Board of Health in the USA in 1866,
and cholerabecame the first reportable disease.The current (seventh) pandemic now has involvedalmost the whole world. This pandemic began inIndonesia,
rather than the Ganges delta, and thecausative agent was a biotype of 
V cholerae
serogroup O1called El Tor. It was first isolated in 1905 fromIndonesian pilgrims travelling to Mecca at a quarantinestation in the village of El Tor, Egypt.
It was found againin 1937 in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Then in 1960, forunknown reasons, this strain began to spread around theworld. It invaded India in 1964, Africa in 1970,
southern Europe in 1970,
and South America in1991.
The disease has now become endemic in manyof these places, particularly south Asia and Africa. Since1973, a focus of El Tor
similar but not identicalto the pandemic strain has persisted in the Gulf of Mexicoof the USA causing sporadic cases of summertime,seafood-associated cholera.
In 1992, a newly described, non-O1 serogroup of 
designated O139 Bengal, caused unusualcholera outbreaks in India and Bangladesh.
Before thediscovery of 
V cholerae
O139 (the 139th serotype in thetyping scheme for
V cholerae)
, only serogroup O1 wasknown to cause epidemic cholera, so the O139 serotypewas essentially a “new” cause of cholera.
SerogroupsO139 Bengal and O1 now coexist and continue to causelarge outbreaks of cholera in India and Bangladesh. TheO139 serogroup is likely to be the cause of the next
David A Sack, R Bradley Sack, G Balakrish Nair, AKSiddique
• Vol 363 • January 17, 2004 • www.thelancet.com
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh,Centre for Health and Population Research, Dhaka, Bangladesh
(Prof D A Sack
, G B Nair
, A K Siddique
; and Departmentof International Health, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Schoolof Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA
(D A Sack, Prof R B Sack
Correspondence to:
Dr David A Sack, ICDDR,B, GPO Box 128,Dhaka, Bangladesh(e-mail: dsack@icddrb.org)
Search strategy
We carried out a PubMed search with the terms "cholera"and "Vibrio cholerae" from 1966 onwards and selectedreferences that were pertinent to this review. These articleswere supplemented by additional references from the WHOand historical articles in our personal collections.
For personal use. Only reproduce with permission from The Lancet.
(eighth) pandemic of cholera. In spring 2002, serotypeO139 caused an estimated 30000 cases in Dhaka,Bangladesh, exceeding the number of cases associatedwith El Tor during a short period.
Cholera is often described as the classic water-bornedisease because it is commonly associated with water.This description oversimplifies the transmission of 
because the bacterium can be transmitted bycontaminated food also; contaminated water is frequentlymixed with food, allowing either to act as a vehicle. Formore developed countries, contaminated food (especiallyundercooked seafood) is the usual vehicle fortransmission, and contaminated water is more common inless developed countries.
Cholera has pronounced seasonality. In Bangladesh,where the disease is endemic, two peaks occur each yearcorresponding to the warm seasons before and after themonsoon rains.
In Peru, epidemics are strictly confinedto the warm season.
The seasonality seems to be relatedto the ability of vibrios to grow rapidly in warmenvironmental temperatures. Other than shellfish andplankton, there are no animal reservoirs. In endemicareas, annual rates of disease vary widely, probably as aresult of environmental and climate changes. Betterunderstanding of the relation to climate would allowbetter planning for epidemics by public-health officials.
Although the typical clinical picture is severe diarrhoea,in fact, most individuals infected with
V cholerae
have nosymptoms or only mild diarrhoea, indistinguishable fromother mild diarrhoeal diseases. The ratio of cases toinfections ranges from one in three to one in 100.
Theseverity of the infection depends on many factors,especially including local intestinal immunity (fromprevious natural exposure or vaccination), the size of theinoculum ingested, the adequacy of the gastric-acidbarrier, and the patient’s blood group. For unknownreasons, people of blood group O are at much higher riskof severe cholera from El Tor vibrios than are those of other blood groups.
This susceptibility to cholera maybe the reason for the lower than normal proportion of people with this blood group in the Ganges delta area.
A high infectious dose (10
bacteria) is needed to causesevere cholera in healthy volunteers, but a much lowerdose (10
) is sufficient if given with antacids to neutralisestomach acid.
Under natural field circumstances, theinoculum size to cause cholera may be even lower,because attack rates are lower than in volunteer studies,and many of the patients do have low gastric-acidproduction.
In cholera-endemic areas, the highest attack rates are inchildren aged 2–4 years;
in newly invaded areas, bycontrast, the attack rates are similar for all ages. However,the illness is generally first seen in adult men on accountof exposure to contaminated food and water.
Water-usepatterns in different areas affect spread of the disease. Insome cities in Peru, cholera vibrios were spread throughthe municipal water system,
which resulted in very highrates of infection in the urban population. In rural areas,where rivers or open wells are used for drinking water,cases tend to cluster among people living close to anddrinking from contaminated water. Secondary casessometimes occur during funeral feasts as a result of traditional but unhygienic funeral practices in some partsof the world.
In contrast to
Salmonella typhi 
, long-term carriers of 
are extremely rare and are not important in thetransmission of disease.
Since cholera outbreaks can become massive epidemics,they must be reported to national health authorities. If possible, cases of suspected cholera should be confirmedby bacteriology. Even without laboratory confirmation,cases should be reported if they meet the WHO definition:a cholera outbreak should be suspected if a patient olderthan 5 years develops severe dehydration or dies fromacute watery diarrhoea, or if there is a sudden increase inthe daily number of patients with acute watery diarrhoea,especially patients who pass “rice water” stools typical of cholera.
Clinical features
After an incubation period of between about 18 h and5days, symptoms are generally abrupt and include waterydiarrhoea and vomiting. The most distinctive feature of cholera is the painless purging of voluminous stoolsresembling rice-water (figure 1). The stools are sometimesdescribed as having a fishy odour. The vomitus isgenerally a clear, watery, alkaline fluid. In adults withsevere cholera, the rate of diarrhoea may quickly reach500–1000 mL/h, leading to severe dehydration. Signs of severe dehydration include absent or low-volumeperipheral pulse, undetectable blood pressure, poor skinturgor, sunken eyes, and wrinkled hands and feet (as afterlong immersion in water). At first, patients are restless andextremely thirsty, but as shock progresses, they becomeapathetic and may lose consciousness. Many patients alsoshow respiratory signs of metabolic acidosis withKussmaul, gasping breathing. Most patients have no urineoutput until the dehydration is corrected. The fluid lossmay be so rapid that the patient is at risk of death within afew hours of onset, and most deaths occur during the firstday. However, if rehydration fluids are provided ininsufficient quantities, the patient may survivetemporarily, only to die a few days later.
• Vol 363 • January 17, 2004 • www.thelancet.com
Figure 1:
Bucket with typical rice-water stool from a patientwith cholera
For personal use. Only reproduce with permission from The Lancet.
Several complications can occur with cholera, but theseare generally from improper treatment. They includeacute renal failure from protracted hypotension if insufficient fluids are given. Most cholera patients havelow blood glucose concentrations, and a few have severehypoglycaemia.
Electrolyte imbalance, especiallyhypokalaemia, can occur if the intravenous fluids are notappropriate.
Miscarriage or premature delivery can occurin pregnant women as a complication of shock and poorperfusion of the placenta.
With good hydration, theseobstetric emergencies are becoming less frequent, butcholera treatment centres must be prepared for them.Severe muscle cramps of arms and legs are common.They are probably due to the electrolyte imbalance,although the exact explanation is not known. Theysubside within a few hours of treatment.
Without treatment the case-fatality rate for severe cholerais about 50%. However, treatment is very effective andsimple and is based on the concept of replacing fluids asfast as they are being lost (panel). Replacement fluidsshould have a similar electrolyte composition to the fluidsbeing lost. Initially, the fluids must be given sufficientlyrapidly to make up for the volume that has already beenlost to restore circulating blood volume. Additionalmaintenance fluids must then be given to continue toreplace continuing losses as they occur. If fluids are givenpromptly, nearly all deaths are avoided. However,effective treatment is not always available in remote areaswhere cholera occurs, and thus, cholera deaths are stillcommon.To facilitate clinical assessment and management of patients, dehydration is classified into three categories onthe basis of clinical signs and symptoms: none, some(moderate), and severe (table 1). Signs of dehydration arenot clinically apparent until the patient has already lostabout 5% of his or her bodyweight. The degree of dehydration guides the therapy of the patient. A patientwith severe dehydration requires emergency intravenouspolyelectrolyte solution for rehydration followed by oralrehydration solution (ORS) for maintenance hydration.For milder cases, ORS is used for both rehydration andfor maintenance. The principles of rehydration therapyare: rapid replacement of fluid deficits; correction of themetabolic acidosis; correction of potassium deficiency;and replacement of continuing fluid losses. These aimsare all accomplished with appropriate rehydration fluids.Because of the acidosis, the serum potassiumconcentration may be normal or even high, so thepotassium deficiency may not be apparent. As the acidosisis corrected, the serum potassium concentration will fallto dangerously low values unless additional potassium isprovided.Patients who are severely dehydrated are assumed tohave lost 10% of their bodyweight, and this is the volumethat needs to be replaced. For example, a 50 kg patientwith severe dehydration will need immediate replacementof 5 L of intravenous fluids. Patients who have no pulse orblood pressure should receive the fluid as rapidly aspossible and more than one intravenous line may beneeded to infuse the fluid rapidly enough to restore thepulse. The entire amount should be given in 2–4 h. Themost common error in the treatment of cholera is to givethe intravenous fluid too slowly, allowing patients toremain in shock for a long period. If peripheral veinscannot be found, infusion via the femoral vein may benecessary.For patients with lesser degrees of dehydration (themajority), ORS provides effective rehydration. Thevolume should also be calculated to replace the fluiddeficit to ensure that sufficient volumes are given. Forindividuals with some dehydration, at least 5·0–7·5% of the bodyweight in ORS should be given, just to make upthe deficit, and additional ORS should be given tocompensate for the continuing losses.
• Vol 363 • January 17, 2004 • www.thelancet.com
FeatureNo dehydrationSome dehydration Severe dehydration(two or more of (two or more of thesethese signs signs including oneincluding one indicated by
)indicated by
General Well, alertRestless, Lethargic orappearanceirritableunconscious; floppyEyesNormalSunken*Very sunken and dry*TearsPresentAbsent*Absent*Mouth and MoistDry*Very dry*tongueThirstDrinks normally,Thirsty, drinks Drinks poorly or notnot thirstyeagerlyable to drinkSkin pinchGoes back Goes back Goes backquicklyslowlyvery slowly
In adults and children older than 5 years, other signs of severe dehydration areabsent radial pulse and low blood pressure. The skin pinch is less useful inpatients with marasmus (severe wasting) or kwashiorkor (severe malnutritionwith oedema), or obese patients. Tears are a relevant sign only for infants andyoung children.
Table 1:
Assessment of patients with diarrhoea fordehydration
Management of patients with suspected cholera
Assess for dehydration.Rapidly rehydrate the patient with intravenous Ringer’ssolution for severely dehydrated patients or ORS for thosewith less severe dehydration; use rice-based ORS if possible.Severely dehydrated patients require replacement of 10% of their bodyweight within 2–4 h.Use cholera cot (if possible) to monitor stool output; monitorstatus of hydration and monitor severity of purging frequently.Maintain hydration by replacing continuing fluid losses untildiarrhoea stops.Give an oral antibiotic (eg, doxycycline) to dehydrated patientsas soon as vomiting stops.Provide food as soon as patient is able to eat (within a fewhours).Figure 2:
A child, lying on a cholera cot, showing typical signsof severe dehydration from cholera
The patient has sunken eyes, lethargic appearance, and poor skin turgor,but within 2 h was sitting up, alert, and eating normally.

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